Pentonville Prison, 2010

the drawing shed run an art workshop for family groups on Sunday 25th July 2010 at Pentonville Prison.

The context:

Pentonville is a remand / holding prison for men. The stay can be over a year if they are on trial or remand. Convicted prisoners are allowed 2 visits / month, those on remand are allowed 2 visits / week.  All visits last 2 and a half hours. Visits cannot be booked. Each month the prison offers a Family Day to prisoners and their families. There are usually 35 families who attend and the prisoners are all ‘enhanced’, having progressed from ‘standard’ (those who break rules move down to ‘basic’ status). Enhanced prisoners get extra benefits after 3 months. On Sunday 25th July 2010, present there are 278 enhanced prisoners. Apart from the 30/40 prisoners who have committed sexual offences, each will receive a letter of application, inviting them to apply for a place on the upcoming Family Day. Prisoners are restricted to bringing their own children, or on the rare occasion, a grandfather may invite his grandchildren. Usually, a family group will consist of prisoner, partner, and up to three children. Family Days are very popular and the uptake on the day itself is usually very high.

The family days have an emphasis on children; prisoners are free to move around the space (this is not the case during normal visits) and are encouraged to do things together as a family unit. A typical Family Day would run from 1.30-4.00 on Sunday afternoon, with families finally leaving the space at about 4.20pm. Families purchase food from the PACT-run café to the side of the large space. Within this space the furniture is bolted to the floor and arranged in a formal format across the space, with tables grouped around small square tables. On Family Days this space is usually action-packed, with one activity leading to another, and resulting in things made to take home or back to the cells, quiz competitions and prizes etc.

In the second large space (used by the legal teams the rest of the week), there is one focused activity. In previous months there had been a magician working with a few families at a time. There had also been a farm, with animals walking up the stairs and into the space!

the drawing shed’s plan:

Originally the drawing shed had discussed bringing into the space the mobile drawing shed that is the focus of community-based drawing sessions on the housing estate in Waltham Forest where the project is based. On walking through the prison on their visit on July 6th, it soon became clear that the shed would not fit through the corridors, nor into the lift so could not be brought onto site.

To keep within the spirit of an ambitious drawing experience, Sally and Bobby proposed that they paper-out the entire legal room floor, having removed all the furniture from the space, as well as to cut paper to fit each of the square tables in the main space so that families would sit around a drawing table on arrival (and, if necessary, eat their food off a tray placed on top of the paper).

The scale and papering-out of the space was intended to offer an art process that would bring family members into the same physical space as each other, literally having to get down on the floor together, connect their bodies with the paper beneath them and begin interacting with the materials on a shared image. This was in the context of normal visits being about a physical disconnection, with prisoners not being able to move around and be in close physical contact with their families. The other activities in the large room were intended to offer alternative ways of interacting that were more focused as well as offered the opportunity for images to be taken back home / to the cell, as well as an ongoing drawing activity for the summer period.

The process:

The agreed theme of the afternoon was ‘SUMMER’. In order to allay anticipated anxiety often brought up a large sheet of blank paper, the two artists set the scene / ‘broke the ice’ by introducing two drawn interventions (a large red flower and a river) as well as a centrally placed bunch of garden flowers (on the floor), which greeted the families as they entered the space.

In the legal room a few families at a time were invited to find a space on the floor and create a summer scene using a range of high quality drawing materials, largely water soluble pencils and crayons. Small cups of water were available. Sally and Bobby focused their attention on this space, welcoming and encouraging families, monitoring the materials and ensuring that there was a steady flow of families in and out of the room. At the very start one man came in with a careful and beautiful pencil drawing of his new baby – saying he wanted to do some more drawing over the afternoon. This connected with the communication that we had already received from Helen and Foufou that a number of prisoners are very talented and creative and these skills need to be tapped into.

Over the afternoon, each family group took their turn to contribute their scene (grass, trees, flowers, water, paths, bridges, benches, picnic areas etc). Some returned to complete their work or view the work of others, some stayed for an extended period of time and became very involved while others spent a few minutes. There were a few instances of the older children being introduced by dad to the paper and then the parents using the opportunity to spend time together. There were also a number of touching interactions in which the father would say it was ‘for the kids’ but, after a little encouragement, would sit down on the floor and begin to play with the materials, mothers also joining in. On a number of occasions, there was laughter, sharing of materials and ideas, getting messy, re-discovering perhaps what it’s like doing something together and for some, experiencing an ordinary family time together. Some families were able to spend a long time on the floor, as they might sit in a park for many hours, healthy mirroring a ‘normal’ shared family activity.

In the large space, and seated around the square tables, each family was invited to draw onto the drawing table their favourite picnic that they would like to share. The task was communicated via printed sheets prepared by Helen and the space facilitated by the volunteers. While this was perhaps a less structured part of the activity than previously adopted on Family Days, the artists prepared a number of elements to it to keep families engaged:

  • Drawing a shared family picnic on the ‘tablecloth’
  • Drawing a postcard child for dad, and dad for child, and writing a message on the back, as if to send
  • A sketchbook to take home for families to record through drawing and writing their family holiday over the subsequent 6 weeks, which they could send through the post to dad to let him know what they had been doing. Families seemed to respond to this offer and in some cases we gave two sketchbooks out to children not living in one home.

The families were invited to place their picnic on the large floor drawing in the legal room, leading to a shared, community FAMILY SUMMER PICNIC. This was difficult to coordinate, given the large numbers of people and through traffic, and the picnic images acted in the event more as a warming up exercise for many of the families. The large floor piece by contrast was rich, full of life and colour and in itself expressed the summer picnic theme. At the end of the afternoon, some families took their picnic table drawing back to their cell / home as a reminder of the afternoon.


Many of the families participating had been able to emotionally connect to one another, on some level, within a shared physical space. The fact that this was with a number of other families also sharing the same large piece of paper meant that an overall healthy connection was mirrored for those families who wouldn’t otherwise have found it possible to connect on that level.

Of particular note was that several of the older children and teenagers were able to find a space within the larger space that was containing for that period of time. For some it seemed that the activity enabled them to be able to tolerate the anxiety and uncertainty of the family’s circumstances with a father in prison. It is hoped that this will be carried with them beyond the workshop.

The drawing shed hopes that the afternoon contributed to the development and support of family relationships within the overall LLU+ project, and that further connections can be made with the creative (arts and therapeutic) activities already happening within the wider prison.